Sometimes, it’s easy to pinpoint what makes a movie great, whether it’s the excellent performances or the riveting dialogue. But other times, it’s not easy at all, and that happens with films like The Card Counter, a crime drama written and directed by Paul Schrader, who has previously directed First Reformed and wrote the screenplay for Taxi Driver.
Oscar Isaac stars as William Tell, a gambler who counts cards at the casinos. When a young man named Cirk (Tye Sheridan) approaches him wanting his help in getting revenge on a military colonel, William takes this opportunity to redeem himself from his past mistakes.
In a time where original films not based on an existing IP are rare, a film like The Card Counter is a breath of fresh air. This is a captivating movie that pulls you in and doesn’t let go, despite telling a story that may not resonate with everyone.
Card counting is an enthralling concept on its own. We learn early on that our stoic protagonist picked up this blackjack strategy in prison, but we don’t know how he ended up there. As the movie unfolds, his backstory ties into the events of the film, as we see his ties to Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe), the man Cirk has a vendetta against.
Despite the film’s title, the movie isn’t about card counting. There are gambling scenes all throughout the film as William attends card games all over the country. However, the movie has a larger focus on the story surrounding Cirk’s goal of vengeance, and how William builds a relationship with him.
But this movie does not worry about building a nice, wholesome friendship between two opposing personalities, nor does it have a scene before the final act where the characters argue with each other only to put aside their differences and work together in the end.
The movie follows a three-act structure without landing on the cliché story beats we’ve grown accustomed to. It’s a movie about a man’s journey for redemption but none of it is sentimental or theatrical. Everything is grounded in a quiet sense of realism.
Another key element of this film’s success is that makes the film work is the performances which don’t feel like performances. Isaac isn’t going for the Oscar with this role. He’s simply a quiet man skilled at counting cards suffering from the inner turmoil caused by his past, and he plays it so naturally that it’s easy to forget you’re watching an actor.
We have Tiffany Haddish as La Linda in a departure from her typical comedy roles. She shines in this film as a kind stranger who strikes a friendship with William. While Isaac and Haddish don’t share too much chemistry together, the places Schrader takes their relationship generally work.
However, as Schrader is coming hot off the heels of First Reformed, some may be disappointed if the film doesn’t match that level of quality. La Linda deserved a bit more characterization, and there is a critical event near the end that is left offscreen. While this was done to keep the film in William’s perspective, it may not work for everyone.
But for some inexplicable reason, this movie is fascinatingly remarkable. It doesn’t have much violence or tension. But something about the story and characters is beyond compelling. Maybe the enchanting cinematography helps, or DaFoe’s excellent performance despite his limited screen time, but this movie has an undefinable quality to it.
Will everyone like this movie? Definitely not. Could the ending have been better? Absolutely. But this movie is truly engaging. Some may watch the film and not connect with it at all, but some may adore it. Much like a deck of cards, no matter how you shuffle it, you won’t get the same outcome.
Grade: ★★★★☆ [8/10, B+]
Jonathan’s Tips: The trailer doesn’t do the movie justice, so you don’t need to watch it. But this movie is good. I’d recommend it if you like simple dramas with crime elements.
The Card Counter is only in theaters September 10.